Are Mandatory Covid Vaccinations a Violation of Human Rights?

By William J. Furney

In France, police are patrolling streetside cafes and asking patrons sipping coffee and wine if they’re vaccinated against covid, and if so, to please show digital or other proof or go home and possibly face a fine. In places like London, UK, and locked-down Sydney, Australia, citizens are erupting in fury on the streets at what they see as a fundamental violation of their basic human rights — having to get vaccinated against covid to go to such ordinary places as restaurants, bars and gyms. 

Do they have a point?

I am double-jabbed, and have a digital and paper EU certificate to prove it, and the only reason I got it was because I have to travel (I suspect I had covid last year, and it was a brutal, three-week experience). 

To learn more about the ethics about mandatory covid vaccinations and whether they might violate our rights, I asked Professor Justine Nolan, director of the Australian Human Rights Institute for her views. 

Is it ethical, or even a violation of human rights, to have to present a so-called covid passport to do such fundamental things as shop, enter a restaurant or pub or go to the gym — and also get on a plane and travel?

Questions of what is ethical and what violates human rights are not always the same. The answer here largely depends on the context and viewed from the lens of what is reasonable and proportionate. 

For example, is it reasonable for a government or a business to impose entry standards that serve to protect broader goals of public health? 

Generally yes, but that depends also on whether people have had the opportunity to meet the restriction imposed — ie, had access to a vaccine, for example. 

When restrictions are made on human rights, the onus is on the government to show that such restrictions are proportionate and done in the least-restrictive manner possible. So it’s a contextual question of whether a covid passport restriction passes this test.

Now is the time to listen to scientists, not social media, says Professor Nolan.

Do people not have a right to decide what goes into their bodies, even amid a pandemic death toll of 4.3 million people and vaccinations that are designed to protect them?

Encouraging and incentivising vaccination is different from mandatory vaccination. The important issue here is that vaccination, like any other medical intervention, must be based on the individual’s free and informed consent. 

However, if we look to history, there have been examples where human rights law may consider vaccination might be justified in terms of protecting public health. But where people decide not to get vaccinated, it may still be reasonable to exclude them from participation in certain activities — but this is very different from mandating vaccination. Some countries demand vaccination against measles, mumps, rubella in order for school entry for example.

Is there much scepticism in Australia about the various vaccines and their effectiveness, given the rise of the Delta variant and that you can get jabbed but also still contract and spread covid?

There has been significant vaccine hesitancy in Australia but this seems to be a mix of both informed and uninformed views and inconsistent messaging from the government.

It’s a question of whether a covid passport passes the test of being proportionate and done in the least-restrictive manner.

Professor Justine Nolan

Australia was widely praised for its success in containing the spread of coronavirus, closing borders and largely getting on with life — until lockdowns were introduced in major cities in July this year. What do you think went wrong?

Australia’s main defensive mechanism has been to shut down its borders, which led to early success but is not sustainable over the long term. The economic costs and mental health implications of long lockdowns need to be part of the equation in working out the best way to manage the dangers of the pandemic alongside the question of how to protect public health. 

Access to the vaccine and the government vaccine rollout has been slow and marked by many missteps — we are now in a game of catch-up.

Can you understand Australians’ frustrations at what some see as a suspension of their civil liberties and, by extension, their fundamental human rights, as we’ve seen with demonstrations in Sydney and elsewhere in the country?

Yes, and people should always have the ability to object to and protest against restrictions of their rights. The challenge in times of covid is doing that in a way that is reasonable and does not endanger others.

Have you been vaccinated?

Yes, and nothing really to complain about, just some tiredness.

What is your view of anti-vaxxers, who think covid vaccinations are just an attempt to control people?

Much like with climate change, there is a time to listen to the scientists, and this is one of those times. Get informed by expertise — not social media.

More broadly, and away from covid, what do you see as the biggest human rights challenges facing the world right now?

One of the biggest is the impact of climate change — it affects a litany of rights, including the right to life, health, livelihood, to name just a few, and impacts the most vulnerable in a significant and unequal manner.